Image: Yakutia – Alrosa

Yakutia, a harsh Siberian region, is one of the coldest places on earth, where temperatures in the capital, Yakutsk, can drop below -70C, and the ground remains frozen all year.

Surviving in these harsh conditions requires great physical and mental fortitude, for which Yakuts, a Turkic-speaking ethnic group based in north-eastern Siberia are famous. And none more so than their hero Kyndykan, a young girl who survived a smallpox outbreak that killed everyone else in her settlement before fending for herself in the wilderness until she was rescued by hunters.

ALROSA, the world’s largest diamond company by carat with 90% of its operations based in Yakutia, is using Kyndykan’s story to tell the world about the wonders of this beautiful but little-known region and its indigenous communities.

All ALROSA’s diamonds are ethically sourced, and approximately eight percent of annual revenue – equivalent to £161million in 2020 – goes towards the Diamonds that Care initiative, which supports environmental, social and cultural projects in the areas where the firm operates.

This includes celebrating the unique traditions and history of Yakutia’s indigenous peoples, among whom Kyndykan’s legacy looms large.

Her name has been famous here since she was discovered 200 years ago in an ancestral settlement near the Verkhoyansk Mountains after it had been completely devastated by smallpox. How she was able to survive alone in one of the harshest landscapes on earth remains a mystery, and her resilience continues to inspire people to this day.

Similarly astonishing is her homeland, with its rugged mountains, winding rivers and vast tundra and taiga (snow forest) the size of oceans. This epic wilderness – large enough to hide Tibet and the Nordic fjords within them – is roamed by vast herds of reindeer, elk and wild horses that have evolved to cope with the brutal conditions.

But travellers will find the welcome they receive here anything but frosty. The people of the region – which is also known as Sakha – are famously friendly and there is lots for visitors to do, from sleigh rides and local festivals to sampling the delights of Siberian cuisine.

You can wrap up in traditional furs and explore the city of Yakutsk, six hours by plane from Moscow. It is home to the world’s only mammoth museum and undoubtedly its coldest farmers’ market, where stalls sell fresh produce including meat from native animals like elk and reindeer.

ALROSA found its first rough diamond in Yakutia way back in 1949. Today, tourists can find out how diamonds are still mined and produced in such a challenging natural environment. At the end of a long day exploring, there’s the option of a traditional lift home on a sled pulled by dogs or reindeer. And to remember your visit you can buy a Kyndykan doll in traditional Even clothing.

ALROSA’s Diamonds that Care initiative helps organise cultural festivals, supports ancestral deer-herding and fishing, and training local communities in various specialities. In 2020, it launched the Kyndykan project to educate visitors and the wider world about the indigenous peoples of the north and the risk that their way of life could disappear.

The project supports local artists, writers, film-makers and musicians to retell Kyndykan’s heroism today, including in Even, Kyndykan’s native tongue.

There is now a music video about her experience by Yakut performer KitJah, while next year a short animation film on her story will be broadcast to the world.

Aside from its unique culture, Yakutia is also a spectacular location for nature lovers. Living Diamonds of Yakutia Park – which ALROSA helped to establish in 2009 – is a 32,000-hectare conservation area home to reindeer, yaks, bison, white Yakut horses, elk, bears, peacocks, dogs and lynxes.

All these animals live in the wild just like when Kyndykan was alive, but under close protection.

ALROSA is also funding the creation of the ALROSA-Rangifer Chekanovsky reserve, which will cover more than 64,000 hectares and provide a safe breeding ground for 84,000 wild reindeer. Rangers will be working to boost the number of females in the herd to secure the species’ survival.

Another way the company is giving back to local communities is by creating a new attraction in the village of Aikhal to teach visitors about local nature and traditions.

Yakutia’s vast swathe of protected natural habitats makes it ideal for ecotourism, and visitors can enjoy tours accompanied by local guides.

Thanks to its spectacular landscapes and rich culture – both of which ALROSA is helping to project – Russia’s far north remains an unforgettable destination for travellers who want to experience how life and adventure thrive in the most extreme conditions.

It may be more than two centuries since Kyndykan’s extraordinary tale of survival against overwhelming odds, but Yakutia remains a place where thanks to ALROSA, miracles happen.

Diamonds that Care: How it makes a difference in Yakutia

Diamonds that Care began as a social responsibility initiative with a mission to give back to the communities that ALROSA operates in.

It now contributes millions of pounds every year through a series of projects, including –

  • Preserving the population of wild reindeer: Funded the creation of one nature reserve and is now working on a second, in addition to providing scientists with trackers to monitor population numbers.
  • Expanding opportunities for dance and theatre: Partners with Culture for the Children, an organisation founded by the ballerina Ilze Liepa to bring cultural enrichment to remote Russian regions.
  • Renovation of Yakutsk chess centre: More than 100 children now play here after much-needed building work.
  • Tackling hunger and promoting health in remote villages: Supports Zhilinda village, a settlement of about 600 residents located north of the Arctic Circle by arranging regular deliveries of fresh produce.